Book Review: In the Shadow of Edgar Allen Poe
Leslie S. Klinger, editor
Pegasus Books, 2015
Renowned Sherlock Holmes authority Leslie Klinger opens his Introduction to his new volume, In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe with a flat declaration: “Edgar Allan Poe did not invent the tale of terror” and then proceeds produce a list of precedents so anemic that he himself must have been the first person to see that in every important way, Edgar Allan Poe invented the tale of terror.
Klinger cites the visit Odysseus pays the underworld in the Odyssey; he mentions Saul getting the Witch of Endor to summon the ghost of the prophet Samuel; he brings in Horace Walpole, Anne Radcliffe, Washington Irving, and even, bless him, Varney the Vampyre, and by the time he reaches the mid-19th century, he’s therefore able to conclude, “the tales of Edgar Allan Poe were mid-century milestones on the trail of the horror story.”
Whether milestones or foundation stones, Klinger has here assembled a fascinating and largely unpredictable assortment of stories drawn – as the book’s title indicates – from decades following the peak of Poe’s working life. One of the stories Klinger includes, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s oft-anthologized 1891 “The Yellow Wallpaper,” will be familiar to every North American reader who was forced to read it in high school. And a handful of the twenty authors in this anthology’s Table of Contents will likewise be familiar, names like Sarah Orne Jewett, whose insidious 1890 story “In Dark New England Days” virtually never shows up in collections of this kind. There’s also the great M. R. James, whose 1904 “Lost Hearts” is included here, and Ambrose Bierce’s oddly touching “The Moonlit Road.” Bram Stoker is here, of course, but with an offbeat choice, his 1914 story “The Squaw”; and given our editor’s main area of interest, it’s not surprising to find a story from Arthur Conan Doyle, 1902’s “The Leather Funnel.” The volume’s two best stories, Le Fanu’s fantastic “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” from 1853 and Lafcadio Hearn’s beautiful 1900 story “The Corpse-Rider,” are likewise canny choices, the sure sign of an alert editor at work.
“Poe’s best stories traverse the ranges of existentialism – pondering the inexorable nature of time and death and the indifference of God – and the depths of the human soul,” Klinger writes. “They explore the demonic souls of ordinary people and extraordinary criminals and the pathology of crime and confession.” And as he rightly points out, he’s far more widely read today than he was in his own time, with a fame and popular appeal that only seems to grow as the times become more warped and less accountable to a Victorian idea of reality. Klinger’s anthology serves a purpose of celebrating that warping influence, but it mainly performs another essential purpose of any good anthology: it makes you want to find more writings by its authors. A shameful preponderance of these authors are no longer in print, but they were all champions of the local library.